Pima Community College Leadership Spotlight
Q&A with Hilda Ladner, Executive Director for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
Changing the narrative on how we educate to encompass who we educate—focusing on accessibility and inclusivity at the community college level—is the mission. In this fourth installment of our leadership spotlight series, we unpack the relevance of a person’s culture and the needing to find your people as essential. Meet, Hilda Ladner, Executive Director for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for Pima Community College. She is a realist whose speech is passion-filled as she reflects on her personal journey that unfolded her educational choices and professional vision.
Share with us a little bit about your journey / background.
My mother made a decision to leave our home in Sonora, Mexico, and migrate to the USA. I was seven (7) and we made our new home in Chandler, Arizona. I rose through the public education system never thinking about where that education would lead. Even as I was enrolled in International Baccalaureate [IB], Advanced Placement [AP] and honors courses, and getting brochures in the mail from every Ivy League university, no one ever talked to me about college. As a first-generation college student, living in poverty, I didn’t know I had options. One day, late in my senior year of high school, I recognized many of my peers had applied and were accepted to college. Again, I hadn’t thought much about it, even though I did love school, enjoyed learning, and was a top student. Fortunately, all three Arizona Universities offered me scholarships that would cover the cost of my higher education. I had options.
I received both my Bachelor of Liberal Arts in Modern Languages [French and Spanish] and Master of Education in Bilingual and Multicultural Education at Northern Arizona University (NAU). I was introduced to the Student Affairs profession as an undergrad and began my professional career during my graduate program at NAU. Most of my career has been in Multicultural Affairs and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at four-year universities.
Throughout my career, I have worked with marginalized and minoritized students, students without a home, undocumented students and what they each want is an opportunity. Our policies can sometimes get in the way. The cost of education keeps students out [too]. I am tenacious and the memory of where I came from keeps me working to meet the needs of the students we serve. I came to Pima Community College to make a difference in how to serve the students that have been most under-served by our higher education system.
How has education helped you get where you are today?
My liberal arts education along with my work as a student employee prepared me well for work and life. I believe in an education that opens doors to any path that life might present you and studying language and culture certainly did that for me. Working in a college setting is an educational experience like no other. My early work as a pre-major academic adviser and then as a career counselor opened my eyes to the importance of advocating for students who are viewed outside of the traditional college norm. My mentors at NAU [in Student Affairs] showed me a career path I did not know existed before I entered college. That path has led to this work where I remain connected to higher education and advocacy for students and to our increasing understanding of diversity and the importance of equity and inclusion.
How do you feel you are making a difference at PCC?
With over 25 years of experience in higher education, I am working with our PCC community to create a culture that is affirming and where all of our students have the opportunity to achieve their educational goals. By focusing on community and building a culture where we all feel like we belong and have a voice, we are expanding the conversation on equity. One of the most important issues here in Southern Arizona is that of educational access for our immigrant community. If we are going to reach the state goals for post-secondary attainment, we must address educational access.
One of my first assignments when I joined PCC a couple of years ago was to create the Immigrant and Refugee Student Resource Center. Student advocacy, along with support from administration and our Governing Board, helped us move on this project quickly. We opened the Center within a year of my arrival. In addition to our professional staff, we employ student ambassadors to work in the Center. Student employment and mentoring is another way we continue to build up our community. The students working in our center not only assist us with service to other students, but the experience helps them open more doors to their own future. It is one of the many ways I get to see first-hand the impact that our equity and inclusion work makes a difference.
What struggles or obstacles have you faced in your career? How have you overcome them?
When I left for school in Flagstaff, it felt so far away and like I was once again leaving my culture and people behind. I never thought I would be comfortable being myself there. My mom’s advice was to keep an open mind and an open heart, when she could sense my uncertainty, she reminded me that, “It doesn’t matter where you go, if you’re looking, you’re going to find your people [whether they are in your identity group or not], you’re going to make connections.” This advice has helped me build community in any new environment. It helps ground my work in making sure we create connection points for our students and for each other.
The work of a diversity office can be lonely, believe it or not, not everyone is open to making higher education more accessible. Recent events highlight that there is more work to be done. I am hopeful that our conversation is shifting. More people are interested in joining the conversation; I have a large higher education family, my people, doing this work throughout the country and around the world.
Why is Pima Foundation important in your work at PCC?
The idea of fundraising and providing access to scholarships for all students, particularly students who are not considered eligible for Federal grants and scholarships, is significant. The Foundation staff recognizes the work we are doing to create a space of inclusion and that alone is a huge benefit.
How does PCC and the Foundation keep Tucson thriving?
Building relationships based on equity and inclusion is a solid path for people who want to live in a healthy community. PCC and the Foundation recognize programs and people for their various qualities. These institutions are tending to the seeds of equity, diversity and inclusion. Those seeds will thrive and mature into skilled and caring residents and workers in Tucson.
How do you keep students thriving?
Our students want and deserve to be seen. I work to build community and a culture that validates our students and the strengths they bring with them to Pima. We don’t just want to have students walk through our front doors (or on our screens in this moment), we want to see them cross the finish line and graduate.
Is there anything else about your experience that you would like to share with the community?
When I was growing up, the mandate for public education was for the good of the community, a ‘public good’ and thus, government funds helped regulate the cost of education. Today, education is linked to the individual’s benefit. It seems the idea of building the foundation of a community with skilled people has been lost to the concept of how high the educated individual will rise. If we [all] take a moment to process this and think about how we might turn the corner to support the community college space and remain open to the concept of education for all that honors diversity, evens the playing field through equity and supports an environment of inclusion, I believe the collective [we] will have a solution to depolarize so many issues we face today as a society.
Give back to your community and help transform student lives through higher education. To show your support of Hilda Ladner’s work with the College and its students, visit https://pimafoundation.org/donate-online/ and designate your gift to The Dreamers and Beyond Scholarship or The Dream Fund.
Proposition 300, passed by Arizona voters in November 2006, stipulates that college students who are not legal United States citizens or are without lawful immigration status must pay out-of-state tuition, and that persons who are not United States citizens or who are without lawful immigration status are not eligible for financial assistance using state money.
The views expressed in the above are those of the interviewees. All opinions expressed do not reflect those of Pima Foundation, Pima Community College, or its affiliates.